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Overcome Obstacles in Behavior Change with the Habit Loop

Clients have good intentions of making changes. They get excited to see a new future, a new possibility for their body, their health, and their life. As was discussed in the article “Take Goal Setting to a New Level by First Changing Your Identity,” how clients see themselves may be keeping them from making the changes they want. It’s also possible, however, that the habit loop may be working against their efforts to change.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Define the three steps of the habit loop.
  2. Understand that changing behaviors requires looking at all three steps.
  3. Learn to identify cues/triggers.
  4. Identify healthy behaviors that provide the rewards clients are seeking.

Let’s consider the following client situation. Maria does a great job of eating throughout the day, but when she comes home, she finds herself mindlessly going in and out of the kitchen all evening snacking on food. She has tried to distract herself, but after a few days, she is back to her normal habit.

As you talk with her about her goals and daily routine, you discover that she is a driven person who is on the go all day long. She is using a lot of will-power to get up early, exercise before work, get her family ready for the day, and get to work by 8 a.m. She is always on the go. When she comes home, she is physically and mentally depleted and has no will power left to stay on track with her nutrition goals. In fact, some nights, she admits she is not even aware of how much or even what she has eaten.

To help Maria, or your own clients, change unwanted habits, it is helpful to have an understanding of the habit loop.

The Habit Loop

Behaviors become habits when they are performed automatically, without conscious thought or awareness, in response to a cue. These behaviors require no effort or conscious control. The brain wants to create habits in response to familiar situations so it can conserve energy on mundane, non-threatening tasks and events. Forming habits has several advantages. The brain is more efficient and has more energy to respond to novel situations (Gardner, Lally, & Wardle, 2012). However, when they are unwanted, habits are detrimental, as they are performed automatically, making them hard to change.

Habits run in a three-step loop. How does this habit loop work?

  1. First, a CUE is presented.
    This could be any number of things, but let’s say it is an argument with a co-worker or family member.
  2. The person engages in come kind of ROUTINE
    In this example, maybe the person goes for a smoke, eats junk food, or goes for a run.
  3. The person experiences a REWARD from the routine.
    In this example, the person may feel more relaxed and less stressed after smoking, eating, or exercising.

As this loop is repeated time and time again, it becomes more automatic. The person no longer has to make a conscious choice to engage in the behavior after an argument. The person routinely goes for the cigarettes, eats the food, or heads to the gym. In this way, the brain is now devoting less energy and resources to making a choice when stressed. It simply drives the person to perform the routine that has proven to ease stress and provide a reward.

As demonstrated above, this habit loop can work both for and against clients. If the person chooses to exercise when stressed, it could become a beneficial coping mechanism, assuming it is not taken to an extreme. However, if the person chooses to smoke or overeat, a detrimental habit is created.

What Are You Focusing On?

With behavior change, most trainers and clients focus on the behavior (routine) that they want to change. However, as seen from the habit loop, the routine is only one of three parts. If the cue (trigger) and reward are not addressed, simply trying to eliminate or change the routine may be an ineffective approach.

The Cue (Trigger)

While it isn’t possible to avoid all cues that trigger the habit loop, some can be avoided. Maybe you have clients who want to avoid stopping at their favorite fast food restaurant on the way home from work. They could drive a different way home so that the temptation to stop is removed altogether. This can be effective, but if the client is looking for a specific reward, removing this cue will not necessarily stop them from engaging in another unwanted behavior.

On the other hand, some triggers are unavoidable. Conflict at home or work is bound to happen. The first key to making a change, though, is being aware that this is a trigger. Once clients have identified the situations that trigger a specific habit, they can consciously choose whether they want to engage in the current routine or create a new one.

According to Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit: Why We do What We Do in Life and Business,” almost anything can serve as a cue. Cues include a:

Have clients examine all of the above to see which one might be the trigger that precedes the behavior they want to change.

The Reward

The challenge with behavior change is that we are reward-driven creatures. If you simply have clients stop their “bad” habits, they also stop getting the rewards from those habits. This is the reason people find habits hard to break. Most people don’t choose “bad” habits to intentionally harm themselves. There is some benefit that they receive, or they would not do it. The goal is to determine what that benefit is. It may be a physical sensation, an emotion, or both. Then, rather than break the habit, clients replace the unwanted habit with one that supports their health goals.

Now You Can Address the Behavior

When clients know what triggers them and what reward they are seeking, you can focus on changing the unwanted routine. Help them find something that is a healthy replacement for the behavior and will provide a similar reward.

Below is a short list of possible routines to consider as replacements:

All the above can decrease stress and improve feelings of well-being. These are great options to provide clients with the reward they seek in a healthy manner.

Putting Theory into Practice

Let’s get back to helping Maria.

Regarding the cue, Maria has several options. She can eliminate the trigger by removing all treat foods from the house so she is less likely to snack on them at night. This may work, but her brain still wants the reward of relaxing, so she may end up overeating her healthy foods.

Her other option is to see the cupboard (trigger) as a reminder that she needs to relax. Maria loves playing with her dog, and she says she wants to do more often. Maria got rid of the junk food, much to her family’s disappointment, and decided to put a Frisbee in the cupboard instead. In the evening when she got home, she would open the cupboard as usual, pull out the Frisbee, and go play with her dog for 20 minutes in the park. Having fun with her dog made her forget about her long day. When she got home from the park, she was relaxed and ready to eat her healthy dinner without additional snacks.

Remember that in addressing unwanted habits, identifying the behavior to change is only the first step. Clients need to examine what triggers a specific behavior and what benefit or reward they receive. By looking at all three steps of the habit loop with your clients, you can more effectively help them replace their undesirable habits with ones that improve their health and well-being.


Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House.

Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: The psychology of ‘habit-formation’and general practice. British Journal of General Practice, 62(605), 664-666.